Wireless Providers Rejecting Adult Content

Matt O'Conner
CYBERSPACE – While content providers are adapting adult content for use on mobile phones, their efforts may go unrewarded, at least temporarily, because operators of mobile phone networks are shying away from providing adult content.

The nation’s largest wireless carrier, Cingular, has made it clear the company isn’t interested in entering the hardcore arena. The company announced earlier this month that it no longer will offer customers the option of downloading images of adult film stars.

"We're not going to offer adult content," said Mark Siegel, a spokesman for Cingular. "That is not compatible with the Cingular brand."

Verizon and Sprint also are not providing sex-related content, though they do offer images of bikini-clad models.

Roger Entner, a telecommunications industry analyst with research firm the Yankee Group, believes carriers are reacting to the political climate. But even in conservative times, it’s a potentially risky stance for a phone company, considering the censorship and free-speech issues involved.

"It's an ominous trend away from a tradition of an open telephone network," said Gene Kimmelman, senior director of Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports magazine

As a rule, old fixed phone-line networks were “open,” meaning speech was unregulated, in keeping with the First Amendment. According to a report in the New York Times, “Historically, telephone carriers have not been allowed to censor what people say over the telephone or what phone numbers they call.”

And the FCC has stated that cellphone operators can't censor what consumers visit on the web.

“Carriers can’t prevent users from downloading images of any type,” J.J. Nesheim, a spokesperson for Playboy, told XBiz. She added that wireless companies can merely choose not to offer adult content on their networks but cannot restrict access to such content outside their networks. Playboy plans to begin offering wireless content in the United States early 2005.

In Europe and Asia, users of mobile phones can download erotic images and explicit videos, but they must pay a premium to do so. These services have so far been a relatively minor revenue source in overseas markets, but analysts see them growing in popularity and eventually becoming highly profitable.

Waat Media, a Los Angeles company that adapts images and video to mobile phone formats for Vivid Video, among others, operates independent wireless channels in Europe where users can choose pay content from five to 15 adult providers. While the laws governing explicit content are different from country to country, a Waat representative said the European market is and always has been more tolerant.

Playboy’s Nesheim told XBiz she believes U.S. carriers will become more open to the idea of carrying adult content as technology matures and demand grows. Playboy currently offers explicit content in 17 countries worldwide.